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Nassau’s Cedar Creek Sewage Plant is a Time Bomb

A Long Island Press investigation exposes the plant's disastrous conditions


From here, the wastewater, and whatever solids were not properly filtered, travel to wells, where pumps direct the flow to the next stage of the process, F and FF Building, otherwise known as the Grit Building. Its main room is a massive chamber, three stories up, that is roughly half the size of a football field. It’s divided into three gigantic, canyon-esque pits, each 64 feet by 28 feet—sort of like mini-Olympic-size swimming pools—called Grit Tanks. But you wouldn’t want to go swimming here.

Multiple scenes from a recent tour within the Cedar Creek sewage treatment plant.

Ideally, the bar screens would have removed rags and other large flotsam, so they don’t continue onto further steps along the way. Ideally, wastewater enters this phase as a steady, yet gentle flow, filling the tanks and slowing down enough to allow the “grit” to settle at their bottom, while the debris-free water empties into a smaller channel and onto the next building. Sort of like when you attempt to separate coffee from its grinds by pouring it out into another cup.


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Instead, since three of four bar screens have been “down” and two of the three grit tanks are out of commission, the pool has become violent rapids, forcing a torrent of wastewater mixed with debris raging over an adjacent wall to an adjoining canal and off to the next stage. Dark clumps of solids sail over, as do large swaths of rags and other contaminants.

The roar of the forced gush is deafening.

“All that heavy, grindy stuff—if you grabbed it, it would cut your hands all up—is being sent through the system, is wearing out everything else,” Hopper shouts over the caustic onslaught. “You’re going to be led to believe that this flow is perfectly fine, that the way this looks like Niagara Falls, that’s OK, it’s acceptable. It’s not acceptable.”

One empty tank was overloaded and overstressed due to lack of preventive maintenance, he explains. The other has the equivalent of three dumpsters’ worth of solids caked around massive screw-like rotors on its bottom. Since no one can slow down the wastewater’s speed as it enters the plant, or stop people from flushing their toilets, the flow must now speed through.

And Hopper’s crews couldn’t immediately repair the damaged tanks even if given the green light to do so, he continues—as is the situation for many other necessary repairs throughout Cedar Creek—because his team lacks the federal Occupational Safety And Health Administration/NYS Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH)-mandated, permit-required Confined Space training.

“As of right now, the plant no longer has a safety team,” he shouts over the raging torrent. “So that means we’re not allowed to enter different tanks that may have a drop or fall level.”

Cedar Creek’s management, though pressed by county legislators in 2005 to implement such a team, along with the proper training, has had neither in at least that long.

IN THE HOT SEAT

Cotugno, who began his career in the county sewage business as a plant operator trainee at Bay Park, received his current title as head of Nassau’s plants in the late ’90s under former Republican Nassau County Executive Tom Gulotta’s administration. The sewage plant superintendent did not respond to numerous Press requests to be interviewed for this story or an accompanying documentary. Mangano’s press office didn’t give him up, either. Nor did it give up Ribeiro.

However, he couldn’t hide from county lawmakers following PESH’s February list of violations to the Mangano administration, which included, among other hazards: missing guard rails exposing employees to deep falls, uncovered floor drains, puddles of wastewater, insufficient emergency response plans and “non-functional” emergency trip-wire guards.

One by one, county lawmakers from both sides of the aisle peppered Cotugno and Davenport—the chief sanitary engineer—with a barrage of questions, ranging from the lack of preventive maintenance to inquiries about the shortage of personnel and lack of promotions among employees. Legislators were also curious as to just how far up the chain of command these requests went—and where they stopped. They also requested maintenance logs and other records. The feeling of déjà-vu was not lost on those lawmakers holding office at the hearing half a decade earlier.

Dunne, whose district covers Cedar Creek, led the charge.“It has come to our attention that there is no preventive maintenance being done in the plant at all,” he blasted. “Rather, due to lack of manpower and safety training, the only maintenance being done is of the corrective nature. This lack of maintenance has been going on for years.”Records reviewed by the Press, which Dunne cited more than once, reveal that out of 12,000 estimated man-hours needed for preventive maintenance at Cedar Creek in 2008, eight were accomplished.“Is it true?” asked Dunne.“I don’t know,” responded Cotugno.It was a response he and Davenport used frequently. Documents show both received the aforementioned maintenance records in December 2008, as did former DPW Commissioner Ribeiro.“Mr. Cotugno, have you ever heard the term, ‘The buck stops here?’” blasted Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), who has also been extensively involved with the plant throughout the years.“Yes,” he replied—ultimately acknowledging, along with Davenport, a need for more preventive maintenance, personnel and promotions at the plant.The admission both shocked and vindicated what watchdogs Franco and Salerno tell the Press were countless denials and cover-ups by plant management about what plant workers had been telling them for years. “Ray Ribeiro used to love to say they’re all disgruntled,” says Salerno. “That was his answer to everything, ‘They’re all disgruntled.’ I said, ‘Everybody?’ ‘Everybody.’ ‘They’re all lying to me?’ ‘Yep, they’re all lying to you. Every single person is lying and every single person’s disgruntled.’”It was a sentiment echoed by Gonsalves.“A lot of things were said today that really cannot, cannot be attributed to disgruntled employees,” she says. “And this is what they were trying to tell us over the years. And that’s not the case.”

“We all very well know that nobody can even make a move or blow their nose without Cotugno approving it,” adds Franco. “So, he knows everything that goes on, but he knows how to play the game. He knows how to deny things and say, ‘It wasn’t my responsibility.’ He knows how to throw people under the bus. He’s pretty good at that.”

The official Civil Service job description for Cotugno’s title clearly spells out his responsibilities, and they include many of the tasks that because neglected, have brought Cedar Creek to its knees.

But besides Cotugno—who the Mangano administration has left in charge of both plants despite the mounting evidence of his responsibility for Cedar Creek’s current conditions (and appeals by legislators and watchdogs to replace him)—testimony and internal documents reviewed by the Press suggest others also share the blame.

Drilling into Davenport for answers about the lack of new hires and promotions at the plant, Gonsalves unearthed that he had made it as far as Ribeiro and former deputy county executive Siegel with requests before they were squashed.

“I got to the point at the end of last year essentially begging them to take action on them,” Davenport testified. “There was no action taken on them.”

Cotugno made similar comments, blaming much of his “I don’t knows” on the absence of superintendents beneath him, such as Bazarewski, who did not respond to multiple messages at his home and with family members for comment for this story.

Yet while Davenport tossed his superiors under the proverbial bus for allegedly keeping the headcount down, records indicate other damning inactions—squashing requisition and purchase orders for “necessary emergency repairs” of critically important equipment—could have died on the vine before even reaching those levels.

In one example, according to Inter-Departmental Memos reviewed by the Press—one cited by Dunne at the February hearing—a request for emergency repair work to one of the plant’s three grit tanks was submitted in April 2005 for $93,000.

“Without the ability to remove the grit, we will have a catastrophic failure that will affect the plant and the surrounding communities,” it reads.

The paperwork was resubmitted, with the same warnings year after year after year. The only data that changed were dates and taxpayer costs.

April 2006: $102,300. January 2007: $160,300. By August 2008 the cost climbed to $300,000, according to correspondence received by both Cotugno and Bazarewski. Last year, the original $93,000 job clocked in at $624,000, due to additional work now necessary from neglect.

The order still hasn’t been fulfilled.And it’s not only unspent funds such as these that lawmakers want to know about. They’re also curious where all those greenbacks went that had been appropriated each year for new employees.“It’s like a mystery,” says Dunne. “Every dime they ever asked for, they’ve gotten. Where it went—the Suozzi administration has to account for that. What happened to that money?”But the tragedy of Cedar Creek is not just about money and mismanagement. According to some, Cedar Creek’s secrets are now spilling out into the environment, washing up on one of New York’s most beloved shorelines: Jones Beach.BEACHEDAccording to DEC spokesperson Bill Fonda, Cedar Creek exceeded its permit standards six times since 2007, twice in 2010. No enforcement actions were taken by the agency on these excursions. Since 2007, the DEC has conducted three inspections of the plant, all “satisfactory,” with the last, April 7, still being written up.In addition, the plant had a 25,000-gallon spill into its namesake waterway in November 2008, he says, resulting in the establishment of an Environmental Benefit Project, with the county giving $12,000 to the Town of Hempstead’s shellfish stocking program as reparation. The plant also set up a preventive maintenance program, he says. The DEC conducts at least one annual inspection, he explains, then reconnaissance inspections as necessary—all inspections are unannounced and cover the entire plant, its outfall area and paperwork such as permits and maintenance logs, among others. The agency does not, however, sample, he says.Nassau County Superintendent of Sewage Plants Richard Cotugno, during a public tour that is no longer offered at Cedar Creek.

“The plant is self monitoring (i.e. they provide us with reports)…” he explains in an e-mail.

Some current and former workers believe the DEC may want to recheck Cedar Creek’s submissions. The treatment processes inside the plant are so broken down, they say, that they’re convinced things are being released into the waters off Jones Beach that shouldn’t be and are stunned as to how the plant could be meeting its permit.

Price tells the Press he’s witnessed with his own eyes large contaminants making their way to what should be the final stages of treatment.

Spagnolo echoes those concerns.

“We’re not processing sewage,” he says. “We’re pumping it out, which is not something that the plants have ever done in all my years of working for them.

“If it’s not processing, it’s going through the plant because it has to go through the plant, but it’s not stopping where it needs to stop, so if there’s rags or anything else that’s getting through the process, those rags and things could be going out into the ocean, the ocean outside Jones Beach.”

“I think that we are not only at that stage, that we have already had some spills,” says Hopper. “We’ve had things wash down storm drains and out into the bay.

“Who knows what’s going to wash up on shore,” he continues. “Could it be needles? Could it be different contaminants that are not healthy for you? Feces?”

The Press also observed large debris and other contaminants atop wastewater nearing the final stages of Cedar Creek’s treatment process, but has no way of knowing whether it made it into the ocean. One thing’s for certain: There’s a 10- to 15-foot tree that has grown inside of the plant’s final tanks, its last stage before flushing out.

Yet even if the wastewater coming out of Cedar Creek is within its permit, Robert Weltner, president of Freeport-based nonprofit Operation S.P.L.A.S.H. (Stop Polluting Littering And Save Harbors) that has been protecting Long Island’s waterways—and its inhabitants—for more than 20 years, says the never-ending flow is still horrible for the environment. Pharmaceuticals are not being removed, he says, resulting in among other things, sex changes among fish. Solids that are pumped out settle on the ocean and bay floors, smothering sea life. Chemicals used during treatment also wreak havoc.

“The ocean seems to be a famous filing cabinet for all kinds of waste,” he explains. “Put it in a filing cabinet and shut the drawer and nobody sees it. That still doesn’t make it go away.”

Weltner, who worked, coincidentally, as an electrician in both Cedar Creek and its sister, Bay Park, is also a recreational and rescue diver for the Freeport Fire Department and has witnessed what comes out of both outflow pipes firsthand.

“It looks like a bunch of toilet paper that went through a blender,” he laughs, of what he experienced shooting out of Cedar Creek’s outflow pipe off Jones Beach.

Nassau County Legis. Dennis Dunne, during a February 2010 hearing into the troubled facility.

“I’ll take you within a half a mile of the pipe and you can smell it,” he says. “The chlorine, the ammonia, it doesn’t smell good. And you would not ever want to go swimming in it, let alone eat anything out of it. And people going fishing, drifting by there all the time and not knowing—It’s not like they have a big, neon sign over it saying, ‘Poop Pipe Here.’”

HELP!

Mangano has been trying to wrap his arms around Cedar Creek’s many ailments since inheriting it from former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. He tells the Press he’s personally visited the facility. So has his chief deputy county executive. On April 15 he announced an additional $2 million in new equipment, including bar screens, for the plant this year (in addition to $8 million that had already been approved by Dems in the capital budget, argues Denenberg). Mangano also announced he’d be hiring 10 additional employees (even though that would still leave him nine short of the budgeted headcount of 100). He even mentioned Cedar Creek during his State of the County Address last month.

“It’s my view that this should be a facility that really doesn’t have anything to hide when it comes to public safety issues,” he said earlier this month at the press conference.

“I do not consider the plant dangerous because—it’s alarming, it’s concerning, I wouldn’t move it to dangerous because we have some very dedicated employees down there that are really working hard to avoid a catastrophe,” he answered in response to a Press inquiry.

But those dedicated employees are at the end of their rope, they tell the Press. And unless Mangano replaces the current plant management team—the management team held to the fire by county legislatures, cited by state and federal agencies and responsible for Cedar Creek’s present state—he’s at risk of losing even more of the plant’s already skeletal crew, along with the institutional knowledge they possess, they say.

Several residents at the latest meeting of the Wantagh-Seaford Homeowners Association asked why said staff weren’t being led out of Cedar Creek in handcuffs, a sentiment shared by some legislators, said Dunne. Many feel that without a regime change, the plant will never fully recover.

“To complete the job, you need to make a change in management there,” charges Jerry Laricchiuta, president of Nassau’s Civil Service Employees Association Local 830. “Our workers are as disgruntled as you can get because of poor management and bully management.”

“If [Mangano] wanted to put $50 billion in that plant and keep this superintendent, the plant would not succeed,” adds Spagnolo.

Nassau County Legis. Norma Gonsalves, at the February hearing, crediting the Long Island Press for first exposing the hazardous conditions at the plant in 2005.

Hopper, a reluctant whistleblower, who had remained mostly out of the public forum with the plant’s many hazards over the years, instead raising his concerns over and over again at plant staff meetings and directly to its management, can no longer keep quiet anymore, he says. Retribution has already begun for him, following his latest tooting—backlash from Cotugno and Davenport for the grilling they received from lawmakers—further keeping him from doing his crucial job.

And Cedar Creek’s clock is ticking, say those dedicated employees.

“If we keep ignoring this, something bad’s going to happen,” booms Price. “It may be somebody I know or myself getting killed. It may be an explosion that just devastates equipment. I don’t know which one it’s going to be and I hope none, but something will happen, it’s only a matter of time.”

Passionate about what has to be done, but growing more and more frustrated by the hour, Hopper still holds out hope, believing that one day, someone will take the time to put all the pieces together about what has been taking place in his dilapidated monster by the sea—and help him fix it before it’s too late.

Help, he says, can’t come soon enough.

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